For What Majors Does College Pay Off?

Anthony P. Carnevale, Ban Cheah, and Jeff Strohl of the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce have published \”Hard Times: College Majors, Unemployment, and Earnings.\”
The main focus of the report is to look at what people majored in in college, and then to compare unemployment and earnings between majors.  Before showing some highlights, two warnings are appropriate.

First, the data behind these figures is from 2009 and 2010. The study compares recent college graduates who are 22-26 years of age, experienced workers who are 30-54 years of age, and graduate degree holders who are limited to 30-54 years of age–all from the 2009 and 2010 data. But how things looked in 2009 and 2010 may not be a good predictor of the future: for example, recent architecture graduates were doing poorly in the aftermath of the housing market collapse in 2009 and 2010, but that wasn\’t true back in 2005. 

Second, the classic problem in thinking about benefits of education is to isolate cause and effect. The problem is that those who go on to get additional years of education may well be different in a number of ways: for example, they may have more persistence in their work habits, or they may come from a social background with higher expectations of educational achievement, or they may have higher intelligence in a way that makes it easier for them to perform well in school, or they may be better at deferred gratification, or they may have other personality types that flourish to  greater extent in an educational setting. Thus, when you see that, on average, people with a college degree have higher income than those with a high school degree, or that those who major in chemistry have higher income than those who major in English, it would be highly unwise to attribute all of the income gap just to what courses they took. If you could somehow transplant the characteristics of all the chemistry majors into English majors, and vice versa, the resulting income gaps might look quite a bit different.

So here is one figure showing unemployment rates by major, and another figure showing earnings rates by major. In each figure, there are separate marks for recent graduates, experienced graduates, and those who hold graduate degrees.

As noted earlier, one shouldn\’t overinterpret these results. But when looking at unemployment rates, along with the architects, those who  majored in humanities or in in the arts have relatively high rates, while those who had majored in health and education had relatively low unemployment rates.

When it comes to income, the highest income levels are for those who majored engineering, computer science/mathematics, life sciences, social sciences, and business. The lower income went to those majoring in arts, education, and psychology/social work.

Low-Cost Education Reforms: Later Starts, K-8, and Focusing Teachers

Discussions of education reform often seem to collide with a budgetary brick wall. Longer school year? Better teacher pay? Longer school day? What school district can afford it? Thus, the discussion paper by Brian E. Jacob and Jonah Rockoff for the Hamilton Project is a breath of fresh air, because they propose three low-cost methods of reorganizing existing school resources in ways that research suggests will improve student performance. Their overview (citations and footnotes dropped throughout):

\”In this paper, we describe three organizational reforms that recent evidence suggests have the potential to increase K–12 student performance at modest costs: (1) Starting school later in the day for middle and high school students; (2) Shifting from a system with separate elementary and middle schools to one with schools that serve students in kindergarten through grade eight; (3) Managing teacher assignments with an eye toward maximizing student achievement (e.g. allowing teachers to gain experience by teaching the same grade level for multiple years or having teachers specializing in the subject where they appear most effective). We conservatively estimate that the ratio of benefits to costs is 9 to 1 for later school start times and 40 to 1 for middle school reform. A precise benefit-cost calculation is not feasible for the set of teacher assignment reforms we describe, but we argue that the cost of such proposals is likely to be quite small relative to the benefits for students.\”

On starting the school day later

They write: \”The earliest school start times are associated with annual reductions in student performance of roughly 0.1 standard deviations for disadvantaged students, equivalent to replacing an average teacher with a teacher at the sixteenth percentile in terms of effectiveness. … According to the National Household Education Survey, roughly half of middle schools start at or before 8:00 a.m., and fewer than 25 percent start at 8:30 a.m. or later. High schools start even earlier. Wolfson and Carskadon (2005), surveying a random sample of public high schools, found that more than half of the schools reported start times earlier than 8:00 a.m.\”

As the authors point out, there are two main tradeoffs here. One is that starting later might require some school districts to use more buses, rather than using the same buses in series every morning for high school, middle school, and elementary school. The estimated cost of additional transportation is $150/student, which is a very low cost for this much educational gain. The other main concern is after-school activities, especially sports and work. A possible resolution here is whether schools could offer more flexibility during the last school period of the day for those who need it for these reasons.

On K-8 schools

They write: \”While the vast majority of American public school students in Grades 9 through 12 attend a traditional high school, a wide variety of configurations are used to divide students in the primary grades (K–8) across school buildings. Although there is likely no single configuration that is optimal for every school district nationwide, it is unlikely that the hodgepodge we see today is based on a careful analysis of how grade configuration impacts student achievement. In particular, recent evidence suggests that districts should address problems in middle schools (Grades 6 to 8) and junior high schools (Grades 7 and 8), particularly in the year of entry, or eliminate the use of these types of schools altogether. … Middle and junior high schools were not always part of the educational landscape in America. … These types of schools have never become popular in the private sector, where K–8 or K–12 institutions continue to be the most common grade configuration. If middle and junior high schools are effective organizational forms, it is curious that the private sector continues to eschew them. …\”

The clearest and most worrisome evidence on middle and junior high schools comes from two recent studies, one in New York City (Rockoff and Lockwood 2010) and the other in Florida (Schwerdt and West 2011). Both are statistical analyses of large administrative databases that track student achievement over the majority of the primary grades and, in the Florida case, into high school. The clear result of both of these studies is that students who move to a middle or junior high school in Grades 6 or 7 experience a sharp decrease in their learning trajectories and continue to struggle, relative to their peers who attended K–8 schools, through Grade 8 and into high school. …\”

As the authors point out, some districts would find it less costly to move to a K-8 configuration than others, and this may be a suggestion to be plucked when the time is ripe. But they add: \”Even if changes in grade configuration are not an option, the research discussed above suggests it is imperative that districts devote resources to eliminating the drop in achievement associated with middle schools.\”

On focusing teachers

They write: \”Recent research suggests that elementary teacher grade assignments vary considerably from year to year, even among the set of teachers who maintain the same certification and continue teaching in the same school. In New York City, for example, roughly 38 percent of teachers switch grades from one year to the next. An even larger fraction of teachers switch grades over two or three years. … The rate of grade switching among upper elementary teachers in Los Angeles, Miami, and Gwinnett County, Georgia, are all greater than 20 percent. …\”

\”A recent study of fourth- and fifth-grade teachers in North Carolina found a correlation of roughly 0.7 between measures of teacher effectiveness in English and math. However, even with this relatively high correlation, the authors of this study calculate that shifting teacher assignments so that each teacher taught only the subject in which she or he was most effective would lead to substantial increases in student achievement. Indeed, they estimate the benefits of this complete specialization would be larger than the benefit of firing the bottom 10 percent of teachers (based on student test scores). Of course, complete teacher specialization by subject would require large structural changes in the organization of schooling.\”

Again, the authors are quick to point out possible trade-offs here. Sometimes students benefit when teachers switch. But principals and others who set teaching assignments should stay highly aware that specific experience in teaching a certain grade and subject does tend to make the teacher better at that focused task. Striving to make switching less common, and instead to have teachers develop deeper expertise in a grade and/or a particular subject, would be a useful step. 

The Supply of Science Ph.D.\’s

One of the odd patterns in recent years is that there is virtually universal agreement that the future of the U.S. economy is closely tied up with technological leadership. But at the same time, those who get a Ph.D. in one of the hard sciences are finding a very unwelcoming job market. Nature takes an international perspective  on this issue in \”Education: The PhD factory: The world is producing more PhDs than ever before. Is it time to stop?\”

Setting the stage. \”The number of science doctorates earned each year grew by nearly 40% between 1998 and 2008, to some 34,000, in countries that are members of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). The growth shows no sign of slowing: most countries are building up their higher-education systems because they see educated workers as a key to economic growth … . But in much of the world, science PhD graduates may never get a chance to take full advantage of their qualifications.\”

In the United States: \”To Paula Stephan, an economist at Georgia State University in Atlanta who studies PhD trends, it is “scandalous” that US politicians continue to speak of a PhD shortage. The United States is second only to China in awarding science doctorates — it produced an estimated 19,733 in the life sciences and physical sciences in 2009 — and production is going up. But Stephan says that no one should applaud this trend, “unless Congress wants to put money into creating jobs for these people rather than just creating supply”. The proportion of people with science PhDs who get tenured academic positions in the sciences has been dropping steadily and industry has not fully absorbed the slack. The problem is most acute in the life sciences, in which the pace of PhD growth is biggest, yet pharmaceutical and biotechnology industries have been drastically downsizing in recent years.\”

In Japan: \”Of all the countries in which to graduate with a science PhD, Japan is arguably one of the worst. In the 1990s, the government set a policy to triple the number of postdocs to 10,000, and stepped up PhD recruitment to meet that goal. The policy was meant to bring Japan’s science capacity up to match that of the West — but is now much criticized because, although it quickly succeeded, it gave little thought to where all those postdocs were going to end up. Academia doesn’t want them: the number of 18-year-olds entering higher education has been dropping, so universities don’t need the staff. Neither does Japanese industry, which has traditionally preferred young, fresh bachelor’s graduates who can be trained on the job. The science and education ministry couldn’t even sell them off when, in 2009, it started offering companies around ¥4 million (US$47,000) each to take on some of the country’s 18,000 unemployed postdoctoral students …\”

In China: \”The number of PhD holders in China is going through the roof, with some 50,000 people graduating with doctorates across all disciplines in 2009 — and by some counts it now surpasses all other countries. The main problemis the low quality of many graduates.\”

In Germany:  \”Germany is Europe’s biggest producer of doctoral graduates, turning out some 7,000 science PhDs in 2005. After a major redesign of its doctoral education programmes over the past 20 years, the country is also well on its way to solving the oversupply problem. Traditionally, supervisors recruited PhD
students informally and trained them to follow in their academic footsteps, with little oversight from the university or research institution. But as in the rest of Europe, the number of academic positions available to graduates in Germany has remained stable or fallen. So these days, a PhD in Germany is often marketed
as advanced training not only for academia— a career path pursued by the best of the best — but also for the wider workforce.Universities now play a more formal role in student recruitment and development, and many students follow structured courses outside the lab, including classes in presenting, report writing and other transferable skills. Just under 6% of PhD graduates in science eventually go into full-time academic positions, and most will find research jobs in industry…\”

In India: \”In 2004, India produced around 5,900 science, technology and engineering PhDs, a figure
that has now grown to some 8,900 a year. This is still a fraction of the number from China and the United States, and the country wants many more, to match the explosive growth of its economy and population. … But there is little incentive to continue into a lengthy PhD programme, and only around 1% of undergraduates currently do so. Most are intent on securing jobs in industry, which require only an undergraduate
degree and are much more lucrative than the public-sector academic and research jobs that need postgraduate education.\”